Friday, November 11, 2011

Artisic L'earners at Play in the Age of Networked Individualism

The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness.  - Marshall McLuhan 

  Attempting the Allatonceness

 As this marks the end of the conference, my last entry attempts to synthesize the rhizome of ideas that have grown from McLuhan's work and apply them to education. He is most-often attributed a prophetic or oracular quality for having lucidly anticipated our current techno-social existence. His ideas on education clearly and almost exhaustively anticipated the current progressive educational agenda popularly known as "21st Century Learning Skills".

From Little Boxes to Glocalization to Networked Individualism.

Social networks have become increasingly complex. They are physical and digital webs of overlapping, intersecting and coextensive associations. Antonio Casilli and Barry Wellman explore the evolution and impact of social networks in today's society. Wellman describes an evolution in social networks that begins with the "little boxes" model of geographically determined communities, where socialization was of the door-to-door variety. Glocalized networks communicate in a place-to-place fashion and include both intense local communication, as well as a global reach. This is made possible by telephones and the Internet. Finally, we find ourselves in a phase of networked individualism, where wireless Internet combined with handheld devices create a person-to-person communication model. Individuals are members of dynamic networks that are decontextualized from any geographic setting.

The implication is that the individual can carry out any networked activity, be it social, work-related and, most pertinently, educational from any location. This allows for information to be produced, transmitted and accessed without spacial or geographic constraints. Alternately, it allows for a more meaningful interaction and exploration of geography, particularly urban spaces, revitalizing and possibly popularizing the psychogeographic movement. As mentioned in a previous entry, the city is an artform that is an extension of the human brain. To interact and explore the city, is to explore the mind. 

Shawn Micallef created a career for himself that combines art, the exploration of urban space and technology. Similarly, 22-year-old Rob Bliss is an urban experimentalist who leverages social media to create large scale urban events. Rob and Shawn have creatively invented careers for themselves that employ technology and art as a means to play with the urban canvass.  Both would also qualify as l'earners, a useful term coined by progressive trade unionist and McLuhanite, Marc Belanger.

Here Come the L'Earners

There has been a great deal of discussion about the advent of right-brain thinking as the key to future career success. As flows of information increase and mediums multiply, creativity, or the artistic mind-set will be most helpful in shaping and re-shaping the emergent world. McLuhan believed that the industrial revolution created a work-force that was fragmented by specialization. The specialized and repetitive actions of the worker, enslaved by the clock and chained to the workspace, amounted to a form of torture. As education exemplifies this system, it is no wonder students often look so tired, so pained and so at odds with their studies. McLuhan further speculates that in the age of electronic (digital) media, the whole person can be reclaimed. 

Rather than a job, individuals will assume roles that undertake many jobs, many tasks and many relationships. In line with the artist, the role will be total involvement. Shawn Micallef does not stop Tweeting, Blogging, or exploring at 5PM. Much like being a mother, it is a full-time, demanding, but willing commitment. Creativity must be enhanced, nurtured and kept abreast of recent developments with a program of life-long learning. Finally, as in all creative acts, there must be an element of play as information is gathered, probed, reconfigured and transmitted. How can success be measured? That will largely be a question of klout.

Preparing for the Playforce

This is a small an imperfect picture of the emergent playforce, but it begs the question: what do we do to prepare our unapostrophed learners for the roles that don't exist yet? We can draw from Marc Bellanger's McLuhan inspired artistic l'earning kit:

1) Break away from the restraint of step-by-step thinking and engage the whole environment, the acoustic space, admitting and playing with seemingly disconnected objects and ideas.
2) Practice pattern recognition by playing with data in a variety of ways.
3) Practice the art of the probe, or the exploratory, inciteful (insightful) statement
4) Undertake opportunities to explore figure/ground analysis.
5) Employing the tetrad (Retrieval, Enhancement, Obsolescence, Reversal) as a creative exploratory tool.
6) Minding the intervals or bridging; in other words, explore how two seemingly unrelated objects or situations can be relate to each other.

These practices are all open-ended, allowing for the emergence of unpredictable, creative outcomes. These are whetstones for the imaginations and kindling for the creative flame. Teachers who practice these methods or the like will find themselves transformed into the l'earners that they hope to perpetuate.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Emerging Connections

We are entering the new age of education that is programed for discovery rather than instruction. As the means of input increase, so does the need for insight or pattern recognition. - Marshall McLuhan

The Cognitive Cholesterol of Fast Food Epiphanies

The results-oriented fast-food culture of instant gratification permeates most aspects of modern life, including education. Inspired lesson plans strive to package the "aha" moment within the confines of one, or at most, a few sessions. Kathryn Hutchon Kawasaki, a teacher librarian who co-authored City as Classroom with Eric McLuhan, was a student of McLuhan's at the University of Toronto. She recalls his unpopularity as an undergraduate lecturer, as he tended to deviate into topics that were a far cry from the modern poetry they were ostensibly meant to be studying. He would spend an entire class discussing Picasso, and the next day discuss Eliot's Prufrock. Students would leave his classes frustrated and confused. 

It was only years later, while she was carrying out graduate work on Anglo-Saxon kennings, that she had her "aha" moment and understood the connection between his seeming disparate lectures. Many of her classmates, all of whom pursued a variety of diverse fields and careers, reported having had similar experiences. Years after the enigmatic lectures, they were overcome by a powerful sense of how McLuhan's subjects connected. McLuhan was willing to forgo the gratification of immediate buy-in by his students. Instead, he exercised a rare patience in planting a more complex seed, confident that, in time, it would produce a more powerful and lasting result.

Teachers work within regimented schedules and cannot afford to indefinitely postpone the desired outcome. By virtue of time restraints, a focus on the immediate and the democratic need to service all students equally, teachers will all too often make the connection for the student. This is harmful for two reasons. First, and most obviously, the teacher thinks for the student and thus denies the student the opportunity to exercise critical thinking, reasoning and creativity. Secondly, the teacher imposes a specific, preordained connection. This is undesirable, because there may be alternate connections and/or patterns at play that will be overlooked due to the confines of schedules and outcome oriented lesson plans. As Martin Wilcox pointed out in his paper, recognizing those patterns we are conditioned to receive is a danger, primarily because a great deal of reality is overlooked as a consequence.

Free-form, open-ended and discovery oriented classes pose the danger of being rudderless and unpredictable spectacles, where chaos lurks behind every corner. Teachers want to work within structured boundaries, but it bears emphasizing that the best learning often occurs in emergent environments that allow for the growth of complexity. Unfortunately, for the time being, this type of educational philosophy cannot be systematized, and thus resists large-scale application. It will only occur with the right teacher under the right circumstances.

 Connections and Patterns

Even the most rudimentary understanding of the brain tells us that increased neurological connections produce more complex synapses and, therefore, enhanced brain functions. Social relations, networks, scientific discovery and symbolic logic can all be reduced to variations on the process of making connections. It is an essential process for survival and success. Pattern recognition goes hand-in-hand with the ability to make connections. Teachers should encourage the opportunity to build these cognitive bridges whenever possible. In practical terms, English teachers (for example) can have students
  • Discuss connections between a painting and a poem.
  • Explore how a particular paradox relates to their lives.
  • Connect two seemingly dissimilar objects and write how they relate to each other.
  • Rationalize abstract art
  • Write a story that is based on a scientific or mathematical principle.
  • Hyperlink multimedia and other material to portions of complex texts
McLuhan liked to package many of his ideas as metaphors. He compared the modern media landscape to the whirlpool in Poe's "A Decent into the Maelstrom". It is by discovering a pattern in the chaos of the water-vortex that the sailor survives. The pattern the sailor discovers is unexpected and seemingly counter-intuitive, but it ends up saving his life. That is why he admonishes: "It’s inevitable that the whirl-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens... we can get through."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Social and Private

The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.  
 - Marshall McLuhan

Social Networks and Communities of Practice

Humans are social creatures, and their evolutionary success and survival has depended largely on collaborative social relationships. Each member of the tribe assumes a vital role creating a network of interdependence. As we return to the global version of the village, digital social networks have become an influential 21st century force. Today, Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa law professor and syndicated columnist discussed how social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, have been instrumental in shaping public policy. Parliamentary bills relating to copyright law, as well as issues of accountability related to the CRTC, have been reviewed, overturned or reconsidered due to pressure created by orchestrating individual through social networks. Author, academic, song-writer and broadcaster Paul Levinson also reminded us that the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements were also the products of social networks. 

In terms of education, social networks are already allowing teachers to collaborate across civic and national boundaries. There is still, however, a great deal of work to be done in order to leverage social network in a meaningful way for students. Ideally, students could collaborate globally, not just within the confines of the classroom, in order to solve problems and create meaningful cultural exchanges. In the best cases, a conversation will emerge that will allow students to have a hand in redefining the nature of their own education.

Privacy and Surveillance

All technologies are double-edged swords. They bestow benefits that allow humans to expand more effectively across space and time. Inversely, they can be equally destructive and counterproductive. Although the Internet social networks allow for global collaboration and connectivity, they also expose digital denizens to violations of privacy. 

McLuhan warned that technology is an externalization of our bodies, and thus these extensions of ourselves can become vulnerable by virtue of their exposure. He would have reasoned that the Internet, which externalized the mind, exposes our thinking process to the world. Andrew Clement, argues that we have to be cautious of being seduced by "cloud computing" and be aware of how our online communications are routed, as we could be monitored by official (NSA) or unofficial (hackers)  surveillance entities. Clement is part of a team that developed IXmaps, a useful site that allows users to see how their information packets travel across cyberspace. Furthermore, the most Canadians are ignorant to legislation, or the lack thereof, affects issues of privacy and Internet safety. 

More relevant to education, most Internet users have no idea how their online activities are being monitored by corporate, government or other entities. Most Facebook users are unaware what information is being used by Facebook, or even how some of their basic activities appear to other users. We now bank online, shop online, socialize online, play online and seek all forms of entertainment online. Each of these activities are fraught with potential breaches of personal safety and security, most of which our students are unaware.

Identifying these, and other issues related to media literacy, Mark Lipton recommends a national strategy to incorporate mandatory media literacy, with a compulsory element of Internet safety and security. OpenMedia and Openparliament are two excellent sites that educators can use to promote awareness, transparency and activism in matters related to Internet safety, privacy and legality.

Interestingly, privacy was scarce in tribal society due to the circumstances of communal living. It follows that, with the advent of the global village, we may be returning to a place where privacy is a thing of the past.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either. - Marshall Mcluhan

The Ghosts of St. John's Ward

As I was walking to the conference, I realized that it was taking place in the heart of what was once known St. John's Ward. Bordered by Yonge, University, Dundas and Queen, the Ward was the roughest immigrant neighbourhoods in turn-of-the-century Toronto. I had read about it the night before in Imagining Toronto, which quoted a 1913 article entitled "Toronto's Melting Pot" that described it as an area of “slatternly decay” and “tumbledown houses”. It looks much better now.

I was honoured to discover that I was the first participant to register for the conference, a distinction which, unfortunately, did not come with a prize. I made my way to the main conference room, poured myself a complimentary coffee and began taking notes as McLuhanites from around the world gathered to pay homage to one of our city's great intellectuals.


While at the University of Toronto, McLuhan founded the Center of Culture and Technology where he collaborated with Edmund Carpenter on an innovative journal called Explorations. The purpose of the journal was to explore interdisciplinary studies and how various disciplines can find a common language.  Issue #7 included a piece called Classrooms Without Walls , a pseudo-poetic meditation on the importance of using media in education. He not only advocated for the use of media, but elsewhere recommends a “a part-time program of uninhibited inspection of popular and commercial culture.” Media and popular culture, if properly employed, become powerful educational tools, as they are engaging and relevant. 

The City as Classroom

James Joyce rightfully proposes the idea that the city is an amplification of the human mind, as it is entirely a creation of human intellect. This is in line with McLuhan's beliefs that technologies are all extensions of the human body. To live in the city, in effect, is to live in the mind and to explore the city, is to explore the mind. Whenever possible the city and all its resources, its history, its geology, its cultural offering should be leveraged for the purposes of education. Groups of students with handheld smartphones and/or touch pads could be sent to hunt and gather information with clear directives, bringing them out of the confines of the classroom. 

Similarly, simulations could be employed to similar ends. Using virtual spaces and synthetic worlds to break through the classroom walls and create interactive and experiential opportunities for students. 

Fun and Games 
Historically, the advent of agriculture allowed for specialization, which in turn created free time. In this age of abundance, free time is the rule, not the exception and thus entertainment has become an industry. Education strives to be entertaining, as this implies buy-in and engagement. Games and ludic activities are ideal forms of educational entertainment. They are engaging and interacive, but also microcosms of the real world. The use of games as educational tools would prove roundly beneficial. There are a number of books and articles that look at the possibility of distilling the engaging aspects of commercially successful video games in order to apply them to education. Alternately, it would be interesting to apply some of these concepts in the class, but not in terms of bringing video games into the class, but turning the class into a video game.

Games are inherently active and participatory. I strongly believe that a curriculum design based entirely on games and environmentally structured as an elaborate game would take student engagement and learning to new heights. Interestingly and relevantly, Oxford mathematician Lewis Carroll structured his semantic masterpieces "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through A Looking Glass" around games.

In Sum: Environments 

The sections above share the common theme of environments. As the world has been transformed around schools, little has changed from the one room schoolhouse. Students generally sit in rows in a rectangular room, the teacher stands at the front, chalk tablets have become iPads, and chalkboards are now Smartboards. Despite improved content delivery, the FORMS remain utterly unchanged. The form, however, is the MEDIUM and it is the medium (the environment) that has the most significant impact on social and cognitive dynamics, not the content. Consequently, for education to not only catch-up, but leap ahead, the environments where education take place must be transformed. Ideally, education would not be an imperfect preamble to the realities of the working world, but it would become a model to which the working world would strive. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Wychwood Park and Environs

Marshall McLuhan

Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.
- Marshall McLuhan
iPhone Stalkers: 
Finding Marshall's Address on the Fly 

I first became aware of the McLuhan Centenary Conference while standing in front of Mr. McLuhan's former residence at 3 Wychwood Park. Wychwood Park is and upscale unique neighborhood, as it is privately owned and composed of a mix of stately and quaint homes, most of which were designed by prolific Toronto architect, Eden Smith. Smith was born in England, but rose to fame for his architectural work in Toronto where he built over 2,500 residences, libraries and churches.

It was in his house, overlooking Taddle Creek pond, that McLuhan came up with so many of the prophetic ideas about society, culture and technology have come to define the 21st century.

3 Wychwood Park as seen from the driveway
I occasionally stroll through Wychwood Park with my family and had always wondered which house belonged to McLuhan. I encountered a picture of it in the paper a few years ago when it was up for sale, but the houses in Wychwood are buried behind a dense foliage of trees and shrubs, and it was impossible to tell which was his. My sister,who studies in the Faculty of Information at U of T, was with me and looked up his exact address on her iPhone and, by happy coincidence, we were standing in front of his house. My sister took the occasion to mention that the conference was taking place.

3 Wychwood Park on Google Maps
The ability to access information from a vast central source (the Internet) on a portable, hand-held wireless device (iPhone) exemplifies McLuhan's famous dictum that the medium is the message. A greater change in social dynamics occurs from the portability and functions (camera, voice recorder, radio) of a smartphone than from the information and content it can access. Having searchable information at our disposal allowed us to find his address immediately. If I wanted to, I could have looked at the conference schedule and registered with my credit card, all while standing at the foot of Marshall's driveway. I could then Twitter my intent to attend, tell my friends on Facebook and blog about the whole experience, never leaving Wychwood Park and Environs.

Why is this significant? Twenty years ago, to achieve the same results, I would have had to research the information at the library, made a few calls, sent a few faxes, made a few more calls, dropped a cheque in the mail, and most of my friends would have been blissfully unaware of my activities. I would have been geographically restricted in the dusty age of pre-mobility. Now, as McLuhan anticipated, I am a member of the Global Village, and as such, I can hunt and gather information like my ancestors. I not only nomadically wander the web, retrieving the resources for my survival, but I can also physically wander with my wireless handset.

To the point: this blog will document my four day participation in the McLuhan 100 Conference. My hope is that this assembly of great minds in honor of McLuhan will help me better understand how education stands to change and transform with the advent of digital technology. I hope to look at schools and classrooms with fresh eyes and think about how changing mediums will affect the way learning takes place.